Why is Forgiveness so Difficult?

This is a serious question.  Why is forgiveness such a difficult thing to carry out and why is it such a struggle to abide in it?

I remember as a young person reading Jesus’ words and thinking about how outrageous they were, to the point of being silly. 

Then Peter came to Jesus and asked, “Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother or sister who sins against me? Up to seven times?”  Jesus answered, “I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times” (Matt. 18:21-22).

I remember thinking, “that’s nuts!  There’s no way I’m doing that!”  Jesus’ words in Matthew 6 are even more jaw-dropping:

For if you forgive other people when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you.  But if you do not forgive others their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins (Matt. 6:14-15).

In light of how difficult it is to forgive those who have hurt us, Jesus’ words can seem almost cruel.  I’m convinced that they’re not.  But I’d like to take seriously why the call to forgive seems so difficult.

So this is a serious question, and I’m not looking for simplistic answers or even the right answer: Why is it so difficult?  What is it about our hearts, our fears, our trust in one another, and our experiences that makes us resistant and reluctant to forgive? 

How do you find yourself rationalizing not forgiving someone?  As a bit of help, how would you complete the following sentence?

I’m not forgiving him because _____ .

13 thoughts on “Why is Forgiveness so Difficult?

  1. greekUNorthodox

    I know, personally, the times in my life when I wasn’t forgiving, it was because I was always thinking about myself…how I was hurt, what I deserved, how I should have been considered.

    I think an inability to forgive stems from a self-centered core in which we look first to foremost to ourselves. This is not a healthy or Christ-centered approach. When we think of only ourselves, we do so to the detriment of our relationships with others.

    But forgiveness is much easier when we realize that others are just as broken as we are.

  2. sean

    The problem with this question for me, is what exactly do we mean by “forgiveness”? Do we mean a transformation of emotions so that I don’t feel negative feelings towards a person for something they’ve done? Is it letting go of my own hurt? Is it confronting the perpetrator with their actions and then choosing not to hold that against them, despite the emotions that remain? Or does forgiveness mean giving up my right to revenge? Does forgiveness forfeit the quest for justice?

    Part of the reason I think this is so difficult, is that *forgiveness* remains a rather elusive concept with different people operating with different understandings and assumptions.

  3. Debra_VS

    he/she has severely hurt someone I care about.

    Explanation: I have little trouble forgiving people who have hurt me, personally, but have a very, very hard time forgiving someone who has hurt my family or friends – even after my family or friend has forgiven.

    Also, Sean has made several good points about the definition of forgiveness. Can you address this?

    1. timgombis

      I’m just beginning some reflections for a talk on forgiveness for Easter. I’d rather not get into all the precise contours right now, though those are seriously important — and thanks, Sean, for mentioning those.

      For now I just want to get into thinking seriously about our visceral reactions to the demand to forgive. What is it about forgiveness that is so overwhelming and so objectionable? Why don’t we want to do it?

      My aim is to begin by taking those sorts of objections seriously. I think there’s been a lack of that in much teaching (that I’ve heard, anyway) on forgiveness. Many people have been hurt deeply, with lasting wounds and with consequences that remain. We can’t romanticize those away or have a platitude-oriented conception of forgiveness that doesn’t take seriously how difficult is to forgive.

      So, forgive me (heh, heh) for not laying all that out at the start — I just want to think through some of the ways that such a course rubs us as unthinkable and objectionable. Somehow the gospel must overcome all of that with promise — and I think it does. I just want to think seriously about how.

  4. Debra_VS

    Ah, Tim, thanks for the clarification. I think that my reason for having difficulty with forgiveness is my need to learn from my mistakes so as not to repeat them. You see, I equate forgiveness with forgetting, and I don’t want to ‘forgive and forget’ because I feel the need to learn, mull it over, come up with alternative actions/reactions, and so on.

    Of course the old saying, “Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me,” is always in the back of my mind.

  5. S Wu

    I think forgiveness are interconnected with hurt, justice and reconciliation.

    Often I hear a simple formula that says that “if you forgive, then a huge burden will be lifted and you will be a happy person again.” Well, I am not sure whether we can find such a simplistic formula in the Bible. I think the lament Psalms, Job and Ecclesiastes have something to say about that.

    I have learned that forgiveness is part and parcel of being a disciple of Jesus. God has forgiven our sins in Christ and so I should learn to forgive. But then I have learned that forgiveness does not mean that there is no hurt. Nor does it mean that there is justice. Maybe it is precisely because there is hurt and there is injustice that we are unwilling to forgive?

    Fortunately the lament Psalms tell us that we can protest and lament in our hurt. Indeed, the psalmists ask God to give them justice.

    I think it is legitimate to ask for justice and at the same time learn to forgive. If justice cannot happen in this age, at the final judgment God will make everything right. It doesn’t mean that we want our enemies to be punished, but that sins and wickedness need to be named and shamed. Knowing that God does and/or will bring justice and set everything right, we can learn to forgive and reconcile. In the process we find comfort in Christ, who is the innocent One who suffered from injustice on the cross. He is there to help us in our weakness.

    (Sorry I have digressed here, for the question is concerning why forgiveness is difficult.)

  6. Jaime Hancock

    I agree very much with uspatriot55’s comment. I think idolatry is at the root of all sin, which is why it is the first commandment in the 10 Commandments.
    But I think the others have also touched on some good points, as well. Ultimately, I think that we do not believe that Love is stronger than Hate. We do not have Faith in God, that His way of self-sacrificial Love and service will really change the world. I think this is why we also take most of the political positions and actions that we do. It is why we spend our money the way we do. It is why we treat our families, friends and colleagues the way we do. We don’t have Faith in God’s way, and we keep trying to make our way look righteous.
    Jesus totally trusted God to vindicate him, to turn his sacrifice into greater good, which is why he didn’t even need to see proof of his vindication, but could even despise the idea of the cross as being something shameful, but instead believe that it was something glorious. If we truly trusted God, we could forgive selflessly, because we would be completely confident that God would do something glorious with our pain, our shame, and the other person’s guilt.
    But we don’t walk by Faith, we walk by sight.

    Grace and Peace,

  7. Pingback: Elsewhere (01.14.2012) « Near Emmaus

  8. rachel

    one lesson that forgiveness has taught me is just how real sin is, how utterly deceptive satan is, in making hurtful things seem ‘cute’ or attractive (just look at the tv, or movies–nevermind, don’t), and how forgiveness actually costs God something. i have heard people ask, why did God require payment for sin? because sin is real, it needs a powerful antidote. i think it was really more that we humans needed to remember how serious sin is, not as much that God needed compensation or sacrifice in order to forgive. if God were to answer man’s rebellion with, ‘oh, that’s ok,’ it would seem like a minor infraction where it is really very serious. my personal interpretation of Jesus’s admonition to forgive seven times seven, is every time the offense is brought to mind, i have to consciously forgive. and that happens even more than seventy times seven, it is a lifelong process for some very serious sins. people who never have to forgive a serious sin do not learn how it really feels to be betrayed, and how that must make God feel–at least we can get a sense of it. this is no compensation for the pain inflicted, but it is part of the wisdom that comes with the experience.

  9. elliot

    Forgiveness need to be taught at school : The Attitude of a person depends on the character. We need to unbundle . what makes an attitude?. An attitude is built by many things e.g, the environment where the person is coming from, what shapes that person and so forth. what we feed our characters end up forming our attitudes.

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